Friday, October 19, 2012

Why Kind of Blue is the Greatest Album of All Time

by Maxwell Dartey

The topic of what album should be considered the greatest is a subjective one that can ruffle a few feathers, to say the least. Rarely do people tackle this subject with much, if any, objectivity. We all want to believe that our favorite album by our favorite musician is the greatest in all of music, but alas, that probably isn’t the case. As much as I would love for it to be true, Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix is not the greatest album of all time. That being said, I tried my best to tackle this topic while taking many factors into account and still maintaining some level of objectivity. After intense (?)consideration and going back and forth, I came to the conclusion that Kind of Blue by Miles Davis is the greatest album of all time. Now that I’ve let the cat out of the bag, let’s dig deep as to why this is true. In doing so, I'm going to compare it to an album that commonly tops “greatest albums of all time” lists: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles.

Now before you Beatles fans get up in arms, let me first say that no one is dissing Sgt. Pepper. It’s a fantastic album and a case can certainly be made that it’s the greatest. But in my opinion, there are several things that Kind of Blue has over Sgt. Pepper, the first of which is innovation. Music critics say Sgt. Pepper was innovative in its pioneering of psychedelic rock and the concept album. While it certainly was a milestone in psychedelic rock, it wasn’t the first. One month before itsrelease, Jimi Hendrix released his debut album Are You Experienced which contained “Purple Haze,” a psychedelic rock anthem. And one year before that, in 1966, Cream released Fresh Cream which was definitely inspired by the psychedelic sound. As far as concept albums are concerned, you could go back as far as Woody Guthrie for the first concept albums, so Sgt Pepper definitely wasn’t the first. And, to be frank, there are artists who have done better concept albums than Sgt. Pepper. If you don’t believe me, listen to What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, The Wall by Pink Floyd, and Undun by The Roots (yes, I just said a hip-hop group did something better than The Beatles.) If you're asking what was so innovative about Kind of Blue, I've got two words for you: modal jazz. Without getting too wrapped up in musical theory jargon, modal jazz is when a musician bases a composition entirely on a certain type of scale called a mode. Was Miles Davis the first to use modal jazz for a song? No,, but Miles was the first to compose an entire album based on modes. Every song on Kind of Blue is based on modal scales. The soloists on the album basically picked a modal scale for their improvisations and went to work. If you want a good example of that, listen to John Coltrane’s solo on “Flamenco Sketches.” I don’t think George Harrison, as great of a guitarist as he was, could have based his solos on one scale. And in addition to being the first modal jazz album, there hasn’t been another album that has been able to touch Kind of Blue in its use of modes. It was the first and the best.
The second area that makes Kind of Blue the greatest album of all time is the musicianship involved in its recording. Kind of Blue has a huge advantage over other albums included in any “greatest” discussion because it’s a jazz album. Jazz requires a degree of musical skill that just isn’t necessary for other genres of music. Jazz musicians must have the same technical prowess that classical music demands, and they better be able to improvise because 80-90% of all jazz is based on improvisation. None of The Beatles could match the technique of Miles Davis, a graduate of the esteemed Julliard School, or the rest of his sextet. And while there was improvisation on Sgt. Pepper, it doesn’t even come close to matching Kind of Blue. To put it simply, each song on the album is a collection of trumpet, saxophone, and piano solos, which are a couple of minutes in length (compared to a 30 second guitar solo) and all completely improvised. It is also important to note the manner in which Kind of Blue was recorded: Miles Davis basically walked into the studio with rough sketches of melodies and scales for each soloist to improvise on, gave the band one or two instructions, and started recording. There was little or no rehearsal and the band would come to the studio often times not knowing what they were going to play. What’s just as impressive is that the first complete take of each song was used on the album and that each side of the record was recorded in one day. Sgt. Pepper took months.
The last aspect of Kind of Blue that makes it top all other albums is the musicians involved. While many consider Cream to be the first “supergroup,” Miles Davis’ sextet can easily make that claim. Going back one final time to The Beatles, they were a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. I can’t compare The Beatles as a group to Miles Davis’ sextet because Kind of Blue was the only record they did together. However, when you compare The Beatles individually to the members of the sextet, the boys from Liverpool are outmatched. With the exception perhaps of  George Harrison, the individual Beatles weren’t particularly phenomenal at their respective instruments. And even then, when you think of guitar gods, you think of Hendrix, Clapton, Page and SRV, not George Harrison. Vocally, The Beatles were good, but they weren’t great. This is shown in their covers of “Twist & Shout” and “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” When you listen to the originals, you can hear how The Beatles struggle to match the vocals of Ronald Isley and Smokey Robinson, respectively. Every member of the Kind of Blue sextet was a master of his craft. With the exception of drummer Jimmy Cobb, each of the other five musicians can be found on a top ten list for their instruments. It would be like a rock band with Robert Plant as your lead singer, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards on guitar, Jack Bruce on bassand John Bonham on drums. Also each member gets a chance to shine on the album. Cannonball Adderley steals the spotlight with his alto sax solo on “All Blues.” John Coltrane, who is considered second only to Charlie Parker when it comes to playing the saxophone, lights it up with his soaring tenor sax solo on “Freddie Freeloader.” Paul Chambers’ opening baseline on “So What” is arguably the most iconic in all of jazz. Pianist Bill Evans and trumpeter/band leader Miles Davis form a formidable tag team on “Blue in Green.” And even though Jimmy Cobb isn’t as legendary as the rest of his band mates, his drumming is the glue that holds Kind of Blue together. In addition to their sonic contributions, each of the four soloists on the album (Davis, Evans, Coltrane, and Adderley) brought their own unique qualities to their playing. Miles Davis was the shadowy enigma and shows it in his playing. John Coltrane brought a kind of melancholy and darkness to the album that even surpasses Davis, who was known as the Prince of Darkness long before Ozzy Osbourne. Cannonball Adderley brought happiness and a joie de vivre akin to a gospel choir that balanced out Davis and Coltrane. Evans was the chameleon, as he shows when he lurks in the shadows with Miles on “Blue in Green” and matches Cannonball’s joy on “All Blues.” As producer Q-Tip said, the Kind of Blue sextet was the Justice League of jazz.
Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, Pet Sounds and What’s Going On are all iconic albums and I would not gasp if you told me you thought any of them was the greatest . But when you break it down, none of them can match the innovation, the musicality, and the sheer talent exhibited on Kind of Blue. Jimmy Cobb said that the album must have been made in heaven, and I agree one-hundred percent. That’s why I believe it is the greatest album in the history of popular music.

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